Outfitting the high-tech office for people

Ergonomics. If the term is Greek to you, no wonder, because it's of Greek extraction. Put into English as ''human-factors engineering,'' ergonomics is the science of the laws of work - of making machines, especially computers, fit people.

It has become one of the latest buzzwords in corporate America as companies trade their typewriters for word processors, and their pencils and ledger books for the cool green eye of the computer screen, with its relentlessly neat columns of figures.

You've probably seen the new ''ergonomic'' adjustable chairs, with their five wheels and their short, stubby arms. And perhaps you know something of detachable keyboards and other amenities of the ''office of the future.''

But the ''office of the future'' is in many cases ''the office we need right now.'' Experts maintain that the productivity increases computerization is supposed to bring about won't occur unless attention is paid to the total ''work environment.'' As one observer puts it, ''You can't just plug in a PC (personal computer) and expect that that will do it all.''

Those studying office automation and other new technologies in the workplace give corporate America mixed reviews for its alacrity in redesigning work environments when needed.

And many observers are saying that adjustable chairs and detachable keyboards are only the first steps in fully integrating computers into the world of work. ''User friendly'' software is part of that integration, and it goes on from there. Moreover, what we are learning to think of as basic ergonomic issues - questions about the physical environment in which people use computers - are but a few strands in a knot of challenges that technology is posing.

''The ergonomist who today studies the design of office chairs, the angle of video display terminals, the sculpture of keyboards, the intensity of lighting, may soon find many of these concerns obsolete,'' John Diebold, a noted management consultant, said at a recent conference on ergonomics here. ''What if the worker of tomorrow no longer interacts with the computer via a keyboard, but instead issues commands by voice, by touch - or by simply thinking?''

Asked whether companies were appreciating the need for new kinds of office furniture and more ''user friendly'' computer terminals, Mr. Diebold commented, ''It shouldn't be hard to get the point across'' that investment in superior equipment pays off.

And Hakan Ledin, chairman and president of Ericsson Inc., a US subsidiary of the Ericsson Group, the Swedish telecommunications giant, commented, ''We're in the midst of a change. The focus has hitherto been on the computer per se. There was a computer room, and men in white coats to run it. Now there are computers throughout the office, and more people are running them. The focus is more on the costs at the end-user level.''

There is a growing appreciation, for example, that investing in more expensive software that will require a shorter training period, and thus save in staff time more than the extra expense of the software itself, is cost-effective.

And Don Korell, director of research at Steelcase Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich. , the No. 1 maker of office furniture, sees this as a boom time for ergonomic furniture. ''The number of companies in a trial period of office automation is very large. They've been saying, let's work the bugs out (of a system) and then expand it companywide. Now it's gone from less experimental to more 'Let's do it.' ''

Thomas C. Abrahamsen, human-factor activity manager of the Burroughs Corporation, Detroit, says Burroughs's ''ergonomic terminals'' are doing ''very, very well.'' The ET 1000, compatible with any Burroughs mainframe, and the ET 2000, a stand-alone ''intelligent terminal'' are equipped with dozens of little ergonomic details that add up, from a highly ''persistent'' green phosphor that makes for an unflickering display, to a keyboard that is adjustable, to the point of providing four different levels of ''audible feedback,'' i.e., clicking noises to assure operators they've hit the keys.

''But most (purchasing) companies don't get beyond individual work stations, '' complains C. Robert Snyder of the Facility Management Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich., a unit of the Herman Miller furniture company. ''Ergonomics may be the latest buzzword, but companies are having to be hit over the head'' with the need to rethink their work environments.

A larger problem is emerging: Some companies, even sophisticated ones, are finding their buildings simply will not accept new equipment. There isn't room for cabling, for example, and lighting and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems are inadequate. Ironically, Mr. Snyder adds, it's often the newest buildings that have the most trouble. With older buildings, retrofit is expensive but at least there is the space to work with.

Part of what's needed, Snyder says, is for a more ''holistic'' approach to integrating technology into the workplace. He says it also behooves furnituremakers to do more toward providing service. He cites a big chemical company ordering new chairs from a major furnituremaker. The chemical company insisted on, and finally got, a little training film from the furniture people so that its own employees would know how to operate their multiply adjustable new chairs.

If you're gathering that a company needs pretty sophisticated internal financial analysis to justify a major investment in ergonomic furniture, you're right.

''The rule of thumb, supported by studies done by management consultants, is that using ergonomic principles when you make the transition to office automation will give you a productivity increase of 20 to 30 percent,'' says Alan F. Westin, a Columbia University professor who is completing a study of video display units in the workplace. ''But if your conditions are not 100 percent optimal, you have to start discounting those numbers.''

He speaks of ''a kind of triangle: One corner is ergonomic furniture, the right kind of chair, lighting, and so on; another corner is the job design, the way things are set up, whether the work is routine; and the third corner is the kind of pressure on the workers, whether they're being pushed and monitored. You can't work on just one corner and ignore the others.''

What he calls the ''labor-relations milieu'' is an important part of the whole question of office automation. Controversy has swirled about the question of radiation hazards from video display terminals, and unions and worker-advocacy groups continue to demand more research. But industry sources point to studies indicating that, yes, there are health problems resulting from VDTs, but they aren't the result of radiation, but rather, of poor lighting, inadequate chairs and work surfaces, and poorly designed job routines - solvable problems, in short, if ergonomic principles are applied.

In part because of health concerns European countries, notably Sweden and West Germany, with their strong white-collar unions and employee input on purchasing, have been ahead of the US on ergonomics.

Says Professor Westin: ''When we started doing our study, in 1982, Americans were behind. But that's completely turned around. The message has gotten through. There are now some 10 or 12 (US) vendors making ergonomic furniture. They've got some terrific chairs.''

Indeed, some observers suggest that being a little behind, particularly on the formulation of ergonomic design standards, may not be a bad thing. Some European countries, notably Germany, set standards before much research had been done. German manufacturers are always keen to see industrial standards formulated as soon as possible, explains Charlotte LeGates, director of communications at the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Association in Washington.

Germany requires terminal keyboards to be flat - which has proved ergonomically unsound, says Ms. LeGates. ''And so all our members importing into Germany send over keyboards that are flat, to get through customs, but they always include little plastic feet so the user can prop the keyboard up to a comfortable angle.''

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